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The Social Question Redivivus

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Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

by Oliver Goldsmith

The little town of Longwy has a ghostly air. For many years it was an important center of iron and steel manufacturing in the industrial basin of the northern Lorraine and a proud stronghold of socialist and communist unions. Since 1975, however, the local industry, like steelworking everywhere in Western Europe, has been in trouble. Today the steelworks are gone, and so, at first sight, are their workers. At noon on a working day the town is quiet, with empty shops, a few sad-looking bars, and a deserted railway station occupied by a gaggle of drunks. The erstwhile steelworkers, grown old, wait out their lives in bars and cafes, or else stay at home with the television. Their wives and daughters have part-time, nonunion work either in new factories and offices distributed in the fields outside the town or else at commercial centers deposited optimistically at crossroads some 20 miles away. Their sons have no work at all and mill around at these same commercial centers looking at once menacing and pitiful.

There are towns like Longwy all over Europe, from Lancashire to Silesia, from the Asturian mountains to the central Slovakian plain. What makes the shattered industrial heartland of northeastern France distinctive is the political revolution that has occurred there. In the legislative elections of 1978, when the left was defeated nationwide, the voters of Longwy returned a communist deputy to Paris, as usual. Twenty years later, in the legislative elections of May 1997, the right-wing National Front -- which did not exist in 1978 -- came within 3,000 votes of overtaking the local communist candidate. A little farther east, in the similarly depressed industrial towns and villages around Sarrebourg that abut the German frontier, the National Front did even better: moving ahead of both communists and socialists, its candidates secured more than 22 percent of the vote in half the local constituencies.

The neo-fascist right, whose program constitutes one long scream of resentment -- at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at "Europe," and in general at "them" who have brought it all about -- did better still in the decayed industrial valley of the upper Loire west of Lyons, where one in five voters favored it, and best of all in the towns of Mediterranean France. In the greater Marseilles region nearly one voter in four chose the candidates of the National Front. If France had a system of proportional representation, the front would have not 1 but 77 deputies in the new French parliament (double its number under a short-lived system of proportional representation introduced for the 1986 elections), and the left would not have a parliamentary majority.

All these regions, and many others where the far right is now the leading local party, were until very recently strongholds of the left. The demographics of most such places have not altered significantly -- former communists, not newcomers, are now voting for Jean-Marie Le Pen. The community of these men and women has been destroyed, and they are looking for someone to blame and someone to follow. This is not Wigan Pier, the world of British industrial unemployment chronicled by George Orwell between the wars. There the economy buckled and the state withdrew from all but its most minimal commitments, but the community held fast and was even strengthened in its shared belief in itself and the justice of its claims. In postindustrial France (or Britain and elsewhere) the economy has moved on while the state, so far, has stayed behind to pick up the tab, but the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence, and intergenerational continuity.


It is ironic but not mystifying that Le Pen, like other European demagogues, picks up some of his strongest support in frontier districts. Longwy and Sarrebourg are right next to the vanishing borders, once so contested, between France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. In today's Europe you can live in one country, shop in another, and seek employment in a third. But the free movement of people, money, and goods that is so central to Europe's much-advertised entry into a post-national, global era has not brought prosperity to this region -- indeed, the most salient economic effect on the locality has been the loss of jobs in the customs service. The Europe debate, in France and elsewhere, is thus readily cast in terms of security, stability, and protection versus vulnerability and change, with Brussels serving as a lightning rod for a broad range of criticisms directed at globalization and the hegemony of the Anglo-American model of minimal state and maximized profit -- what the French nervously and revealingly label la pens‚e unique.

In fact the impact of a global economy on how Europeans, at least, will choose to conduct their lives has been exaggerated. The mantra "global market forces," the latest weapon in the conceptual armory of the forces of change, does duty on a variety of fronts, replacing the superannuated ordnance of progress, inevitability, historical necessity, modernization, and so forth. But like them, it promises and assumes too much. To take the most popular example: when applied as part of a critique of European social policies, global market forces are presumed to require that the high-wage economies of Western Europe rethink themselves, and fast, lest jobs and investment flee the pampered, overpriced European continent in search of cheaper labor and higher rates of growth elsewhere, notably in Asia. But economic growth rates among the Asian "tigers" are slowing down, and understandably; like the high growth rates in postwar socialist countries, they depended on the extensive mobilization and exploitation of resources, human and natural. An indefinitely increasing input of labor and local capital is not sustainable -- and this even before we consider that such rates of transformation were only achieved, as in the countries of real existing socialism, by vigorous control and repression.

Moreover, the specific global market force that is advertised as most likely to scupper Western Europe -- lower wages in other continents or in Eastern Europe -- may not apply much longer. By January 1997, wages in South Korea were approaching two-thirds the level of comparable wages in Germany. Demand for skilled labor in Asian states and in certain countries of Eastern Europe is bringing wages in some sectors close to or even above those earned in the poorest parts of the European Union. Already the majority of foreign direct investment from Western Europe goes to other high-wage countries. Within a few years, wage differentials alone will not be a factor in the case for cost-cutting except for certain industries where comparative advantage will always obtain. And all this ignores the more serious likelihood that Asian and other cutting-edge economies may not long remain a model even for themselves: the social inequalities and political repression that accompany cheap labor and stable investment environments will be vulnerable to comparisons with and disapproval from abroad -- global forces in their own right.

But even if global market forces worked as advertised, they could not forcibly transform Europe's public policy because its dilemmas are not essentially economic. There are now more than 18 million officially unemployed people in the European Union. Yet finding jobs for them is not the most serious social question in Europe today -- and if jobs were found by significant reductions in wages and benefits, the better to compete with the costs of jobs in other places, the real problems would worsen. Seventeen percent of the present population of the EU live below the official poverty line (defined as an income less than 50 percent of the average in a person's country of residence). Significantly, the highest level of official poverty, after Portugal, is in Great Britain, where 22 percent of the population (over 14 million people) live below the poverty line -- and Britain has the best record on job creation in the EU in the past half-decade.

The social crisis, then, concerns not so much unemployment as what the French call the "excluded." This term describes people who, having left the full-time work force, or never having joined it, are in a certain sense only partly members of the national community. It is not their material poverty, but the way in which they exist outside the conventional channels of employment or security, and with little prospect of reentering these channels or benefiting from the social liaisons that accompany them, that distinguishes them from even the poorest among the unskilled work force in the industrial economy. Such people -- whether single parents, part-time or short-term workers, immigrants, unskilled adolescents, or prematurely and forcibly retired manual workers -- cannot live decently, participate in the culture of their local or national community, or offer their children prospects better than their own. Their living and working conditions preclude attention to anything beyond survival, and they are, or ought to be, a standing remonstrance to the affluence of their included fellows. In France, where there are 3.5 million officially unemployed and a further 4 million in precarious work, fully 30 percent of the active population are exclus. The figures are significantly lower only in Scandinavia, where the welfare systems of better days are still substantially in place, albeit trimmed. Under any present version of the neoliberal project -- budget cuts, deregulation, etc. -- the numbers of the precarious, the excluded, and the poor (disproportionately present in communities of recent immigrant origin) are likely to increase because work is disappearing in precisely the places, and at the occupations and skill levels, where most of the vulnerable population of Europe is now concentrated and will remain for the next generation.

In policy terms this is not purely or even primarily an economic conundrum. Rich countries can almost always find the resources to pay for social benefits if they choose, but the decision on how to do so is in the first instance a political one. There have always been two basic ways to finance these benefits. One is for the state to tax work: by charging workers and employers to help it pay for a variety of social services, including unemployment payments to those same workers if they lose their jobs. This makes labor and goods expensive (by adding to employers' costs), but it has the appeal of a certain sort of equity; it also worked rather well in the postwar era of high-wage, full-employment economies, since it padded state coffers when the unemployed and pensioners were in short supply. The alternative, universal, system bills the whole nation, through direct and indirect taxation, for social services that are then made available to those who require them.

Today, with high unemployment, it is tempting to prefer the second, universal option, since governments are trying to reduce the cost of labor to employers (and with less people working there are fewer paychecks to tax). But the political risks entailed in charging every voter for services from which only some (the unemployed, the aged, the infirm) will benefit are high, though perhaps not as high as providing no services at all, since the handicapped, elderly, and jobless can all vote too.

There is now a third option, a version of which has been followed in the United States and now in the United Kingdom -- cut benefits and gear unemployment and other compensatory payments to a person's past work record (and income) and his or her continued willingness to find and take work if available. This is now said to be the appropriate social policy for a global economy: it penalizes unwillingness to take a job at the going rate, reduces employers' costs, and limits the state's liability.

This third alternative, however tidily it responds to global market forces, ironically presumes the very spectrum of circumstances whose disappearance has brought it about: the availability of employment, no sustained interruption of work experience by involuntary unemployment, and above all a normal wage high enough so that the percentage of it paid out in unemployment compensation will suffice to keep a person or family out of poverty until work is available. It presupposes the sort of worker and working profile that is now rapidly vanishing in just those places where such policies are being considered or implemented. The result can only be greater poverty, a growing gap between those with steady work and those without it, and ever more men and women excluded from the working, earning, tax-paying community that will understandably look on them with fear and suspicion.

These are the losers -- the de-skilled, the unskilled, the part-time, immigrants, the unemployed -- all of whom are vulnerable because of the state of the economy but above all because they have lost the work-related forms of institutional affiliation, social support, and occupational solidarity that once characterized the exploited industrial proletariat. It is they who are least able to benefit from the hypothetical added value of a global economy, or even an integrated European one: they cannot readily go somewhere else to find work, and even if they did they would not find the social and psychic benefits that once accompanied it but would just be exclus somewhere else. Capital can be separated from its owner and move around the world at the speed of sound and light. But labor cannot be separated from its owner, and its owner is not just a worker but also a member of one or more communities -- a resident, a citizen, a national.

True, all labor is potentially mobile across job skills, space, and time. But it is wildly unrealistic to expect people to change both their working skills and their home every time global market forces dictate it. And in any case the crucial variable here is time: the transformation of an economy may be a rapid affair, but the accompanying social changes cannot be wrought at the same rate. It is the gap between economic change and social adjustment, a gap that has already lasted half a generation and will probably endure for years to come, that is causing the present dilemma and has become, by analogy with the great Social Question of the nineteenth century, the critical issue of our time.


In late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain, the visible havoc wreaked on the land and the people by unrestricted economic forces was noted, regretted, and opposed by poets and radicals from Oliver Goldsmith to William Cobbett. The problem of the excluded -- landless laborers, pauperized weavers, unemployed bricklayers, homeless children -- was attacked in various ways, culminating in the New Poor Law of 1834, which introduced the workhouse and the principle of least eligibility, whereby relief for the unemployed and indigent was to be inferior in quality and quantity to the lowest prevailing wages and conditions of employment, a model of welfare "reform" to which President Bill Clinton's recent legislation is directly if perhaps unknowingly indebted. The conventional arguments against state intervention were widely rehearsed: the free workings of the economy would eventually address the distortions attendant on agricultural enclosure or mechanization; the regulation of working hours or conditions would render firms uncompetitive; labor should be free to come and go, like capital; the "undeserving" poor (those who refused available work) should be penalized, etc.

But after a brush with revolt during the economic depression of the 1840s, British Governments adjusted their sights and enacted a series of reforms driven in equal measure by ethical sensibilities and political prudence. By the later years of the century the erstwhile minimalist British state had set upper limits on working hours in factories, a minimum age for child employment, and regulations concerning conditions of work in a variety of industries. The vote had been granted to a majority of adult males, and the labor and political organizations that the working population had struggled to establish had been legalized -- so that in time they ceased to be disruptive to the workings of capitalism and became effective sources of social integration and political stability. The result was not planned, but it is incontrovertible: British capitalism thrived not in spite of regulatory mechanisms but because of them.

In continental Europe things worked a little differently. There, the impact of economic change, often driven from abroad, was not muted by piecemeal social legislation, both because legislatures responsive to political demands were not yet in place and because farms and factories were unable to withstand foreign competition without protection. In such places, most notably France, there was a long-standing expectation that the state would provide when all else failed, a habit of mind encouraged by the state itself. Those crucial moments when the state (or the king) failed to come through are what we associate with the great crises of the Age of Revolution: 1787-90, 1827-32, and 1846-50, when the response to economic dislocation and social protest all across the continent took the form of a repeated sequence of revolt, reform, and repression.

The nineteenth-century Social Question, as described and interminably debated in the middle decades of the last century, was this: How could the virtues of economic progress be secured in light of the political and moral threat posed by the condition of the working class? Or, more cynically, how was social upheaval to be headed off in a society wedded to the benefits that came from the profitable exploitation of a large class of low-paid and existentially discontented persons?

The response of European states to the problem of managing the social consequences of the early Industrial Revolution owed almost nothing to contemporary theories that purported to describe the inevitable, structural nature of the forces at play. Economic liberalism, whether as a description of the workings of capitalism or as a prescription for economic policies, had little impact on political decision - making or even social policy. That is why we have today, or had until recently, a unique and uniquely stable combination -- of market economies, precapitalist social relations and moral expectations (notably our intuitive distaste for extremes of social insecurity), and interventionist states, directly inherited from the enlightened absolutist monarchies of the not-so-distant past -- that characterizes the fortunate Western inheritance.


Critics of the interventionist state today level two convincing charges against it. The first is that the experience of our century reveals a propensity and a capacity, unimaginable in earlier times, for totalitarian regulation and repression not only of people but of institutions, social practices, and the very fabric of normal life. We now know and cannot ignore what the Fabians, the founding theorists of social democracy, the utopian dreamers of collectivist systems of society, and even the well-meaning proponents of paternalist social engineering did not know, or preferred to forget: that the overmighty state, under whatever doctrinal aegis, has an alarming and probably unavoidable propensity to eat its own children as well as those of its enemies.

The other lesson we should have learned from the experience of our age is that, murderous or benevolent, the state is a strikingly inefficient economic actor. Nationalized industries, state farms, centrally planned economies, controlled trade, fixed prices, and government-directed production and distribution do not work. They do not produce the goods, and as a consequence they do not distribute them very well, even though the promise of a more equitable system of distribution is usually the basis of their initial appeal.

Neither of these lessons is entirely new. Eighteenth-century critics of mercantilism knew why state-regulated economies were inefficient and self-defeating. The opponents of autocratic monarchies, from the English Puritans through the French Enlightenment to the great Russian novelists of the last century, had long since itemized the sins and deficiencies of unrestricted central power and its stifling effect on human potential. What the twentieth century teaches is simply an updated version of Lord Acton's dictum: absolute state power destroys absolutely, and full state control of the economy distorts fully. The short-lived disaster of fascism and the longer- lasting tragedy of communism can be adduced in evidence of processes known to our forebears but of which Colbert's system and the ancient regime were but pale anticipations. We now know that some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only possible option.

But that is all we know, and not everything follows from it. The lessons of 1989 obscure almost as much as they teach, and worst of all they tend to obscure a third lesson: that we no longer have good reason to suppose that any single set of political or economic rules or principles is universally applicable, however virtuous or effective they may prove in individual instances. This is not a plea for cultural or moral relativism, but it is not incoherent to believe that a system of economic management might work in one place and not another, or to recognize that, within limits, what is normal and expected behavior by a government in one free society might understandably be thought intolerable interference in another.

Thus the application of neoliberal economic policy in the United States is possible, in part, because even some of those who stand to lose thereby are culturally predisposed to listen with approval to politicians denouncing the sins of big government. The American combination of economic insecurity, social inequality, and reduced or minimal government intervention in the field of welfare legislation, for example, would prove explosive in societies where the state is expected to have a hand in such matters and gets the benefit of the doubt even when it appears to be abusing its power. Thus for reasons that are cultural and historical rather than economic, the U.S. model is not exportable and even across the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean causes quivers of distaste and anxiety among otherwise sympathetic foreign observers.

The British case, which bears some resemblance to the U.S. one, is in certain respects a little closer to the European norm. The British state has never played a very important part in people's lives, at least as they perceive it; it is society that binds the British together, or so they had long believed. Reinforced by the myth and memory of wartime unity, British people in the postwar decades were notably sensitive to hints that selfish group claims were being favored by the state at the expense of the common good. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher effected a small revolution in her country precisely by playing on a widespread fear that some sectors of society -- the labor unions in particular -- had gained access to the state and were using it to sectoral advantage. That she herself expanded the role of the state in other spheres of life -- notably justice and local government -- and used central authority to benefit other sectoral interests is beside the point. The British were susceptible to the suggestion that their difficulties arose from the omnipresence of an inefficient and vaguely threatening central power, though they had no desire to squander the achievements of state-administered social legislation in the fields of health, welfare, and education, as the Tories' final, ignominious defeat revealed.

But the British example is equally inapplicable to the continental European case -- and not just because of the amusing European propensity to speak of Anglo-American neoliberalism as though the British and U.S. experience and examples were interchangeable. There are no doubt many European socialists and liberals who would like to emulate Tony Blair. But the price of that would be to pass through the experience of Margaret Thatcher (without whom Tony Blair would still be an obscure Labour politician with no original ideas of his own), and no European politician of any hue imagines for a moment that his own country could survive that. It is not just that Thatcher produced double-digit unemployment and destroyed the traditional manufacturing base of the British economy, while briefly lining the pockets of the middle class with the windfall proceeds from privatization: some of that has already happened in France, Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere. But Thatcher demolished the theory and much of the practice of the providential state, and it is that which is unthinkable across the channel.

In continental Europe the state will continue to play the major role in public life for three general reasons. The first is cultural. People expect the state -- the government, the administration, the executive offices -- to take the initiative or at least pick up the pieces. When the French demand that their government provide shorter working hours, higher wages, employment security, early pensions, and more jobs, they may be unrealistic but they are not irrational. They do not generally press for lower taxes (in contrast with the U.S. political obsession with tax cuts). They recognize that high taxes are the means by which the state might meet such expectations, and they are indeed highly taxed, which is why they resent it when the state fails to deliver the social goods. Germans, too, expect the state to ensure their well-being. And although, for historical reasons, they are disposed to identify the latter with social compacts and a stable currency, they too expect the state to play an active role in maintaining job security, regulating commerce, and servicing the remarkably generous welfare net with which they have provided themselves.

Even in Italy, where the state is weak and much more politically vulnerable, it has played a crucial role in providing employment, transfer payments, regional largess, and an intricate variety of support schemes, all of which have contributed enormously to the social stability of a country whose very unity is in question and that has been prey to more, and deeper, political crises than the Anglo-American experience can begin to conceive of. Let us pose the counterfactual question: where would Italy be now without its huge and inefficient civil service, its overstaffed public services, its dysfunctional and discredited systems of wage-price linkage, its underfunded pension schemes, and its corrupt and abused Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, established in 1950 to channel resources to the backward south but long a feeding ground for the political clients and business associates of the governing Christian Democrats? The Italian state is not all that has stood between Italy as we now see it and some hypothetical Italian miracle of the neoliberal imagination, but between postwar Italy and political collapse. This is not just because the country would otherwise have faced insuperable social conflicts and regional disparities, but because the long-standing cultural expectations of Italians -- that the state must do what society and economy, left to their own devices, cannot -- would have been unacceptably thwarted. In unsteady and fragmented societies the state is often the only means by which some measure of coherence and stability can be guaranteed. The historical alternative in such cases has usually been the military, and it has been Italy's and Europe's good fortune that that route has been taken infrequently in recent memory.

Thus, although the state itself has had a bad press in the recent European past, there has been little loss of faith in the importance of the things it can do, properly led. Only a state can provide the services and conditions through which its citizens may aspire to lead a good or fulfilling life. Those conditions vary across cultures: they may emphasize civic peace, solidarity with the less fortunate, public facilities of the infrastructural or even the high cultural sort, environmental amenities, free health care, good public education, and much else. It is generally recognized that not all of these may be available in their optimal form, but in that case too it is only the state that can adjudicate with reasonable impartiality between competing demands, interests, and goods. Most important, only the state can represent a shared consensus about which goods are positional and can be obtained only in prosperity, and which are basic and must be provided to everyone in all circumstances.

These are things the market -- much less the global market -- cannot do. Paradoxically, the idea of an active state today represents an acknowledgment of limits on human endeavor, in contrast to its overweening utopian ambitions in the recent past: because not everything can be done, we need to select the most desirable or important among what is possible. The idealization of the market, with the attendant assumption that anything is possible in principle, with market forces determining which possibilities will emerge, is the latest (if not the last) modernist illusion: that we live in a world of infinite potential where we are masters of our destiny, yet are utterly dependent on the unpredictable outcome of forces over which we have no control. Proponents of the interventionist state are more modest and disabused. They would rather choose between possible outcomes than leave the result to chance, if only because there is something intuitively and distressingly callous about leaving certain sorts of goods, services, and life chances to the winds of fate.

The second case for preserving the state today is pragmatic, or perhaps prudential. Because global markets do exist, because capital and resources fly around the world and much of what happens in people's lives today has passed from their control or the control of those who govern them, there is a greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions that make possible normal civilized life in communities and societies. We are accustomed to understanding this point when it is directed to the need for voluntary organizations, community structures, small-scale exercises of autonomy in public life, and local civic ventures directed toward issues of common concern such as safety, environment, education, culture. And we understand, or think we understand, the importance of intermediate institutions when we study totalitarian regimes and notice the importance their rulers attached to the destruction of anything that came between the isolated, anomic subject and the monopolistic state.

What we have failed to grasp is that, in the late twentieth century, the state is now an intermediary institution too. When the economy, and the forces and patterns of behavior that accompany it, are truly international, the only institution that can effectively interpose itself between those forces and the unprotected individual is the national state. Such states are all that can stand between their citizens and the unrestricted, unrepresentative, unlegitimated capacities of markets, insensitive and unresponsive supranational administrations (of which Brussels is sadly illustrative), and unregulated processes over which individuals and communities have no control. The state is the largest unit in which, by habit and convention, men and women can feel they have a stake and which is, or can be made to appear, responsive to their interests and desires.

Finally, the need for representative democracy -- which makes it possible for a large number of people to live together in some measure of agreement while retaining a degree of control over their collective fate -- is also the best argument for the traditional state. Indeed, the two are fated to live or die together. Political choices will always be made because politics, as an antithetic activity, is the proper form in which different collective preferences are expressed in open societies. And because the state is the only forum in which politics can be practiced -- something that becomes obvious as soon as we envisage the alternatives -- it is imprudent as well as unrealistic to seek to reduce or bypass the state. It is because the free flow of capital threatens the sovereign authority of democratic states that we need to strengthen these, not surrender them to the siren song of international markets, global society, or transnational communities. That is what is wrong with the European project as currently practiced, and it is what would be wrong with assigning the policymaking initiative to global market forces.

Just as political democracy is all that stands between individuals and an overmighty government, so the regulatory, providential state is all that stands between its citizens and the unpredictable forces of economic change. Far from being an impediment to progress, the recalcitrant state, embodying the expectations and demands of its citizenry, is the only safeguard of progress to date. Whatever the gains in social legislation on working conditions and hours, education, the dissemination of culture, safeguarding health and the environment, insurance against homelessness, unemployment, and old age, and the limited redistribution of wealth, they are all vulnerable and politically contingent. There is no historical law that says they may not someday be undone. For it is with social advance as with political freedoms: we must always stave off threats to what has been won, rather than presume these gains to be a secure part of some unassailable heritage.

Furthermore, it is not in the interest of proponents of global market forces to seek the dismantling of the providential state. Unregulated markets are frequently self-delegitimizing, as numerous historical examples suggest. Perceived as unfair, they can become dysfunctional and will be rejected even by those who stand to gain from their smooth operation. For social and political stability are important economic variables too, and in political cultures where the providential state is the condition of social peace, it is thus a crucial local economic asset, independent of its economic behavior. That is why "the market" has worked well, albeit in very different ways, in situations as distinct as Social Democratic Scandinavia, Christian Democratic Italy, social-market Germany, and providential-state France.


The losers in today's economy have the most interest in and need for the state, not least because they cannot readily imagine taking themselves and their labor anywhere else. Since the political left by convention and elective affinity is most motivated to capture the support of this constituency (and had better do so if we are to avoid a selective replay of the 1930s), the present afflictions of the European left are of more than passing concern. And they are serious. Since the late eighteenth century the left in Europe, variously labeled, has been the bearer of a project. Whether this project has been the march of progress, the preparation of revolution, or the cause of a class, it has always invoked the historical process, and history itself, on its behalf. Since the decline of the industrial proletariat, and more precipitously with the end of the Soviet Union, the left in the West has been shorn of its agent, its project, and even its story -- the master narrative within which all radical endeavors were ultimately couched, which made sense of their programs and explained away their setbacks.

This is self-evidently the case for communists, but it is no less serious an impediment to moderate social democracy as well. Without a working class, without a long-term revolutionary objective, however benign and nonviolent in practice, without any particular reason to suppose that it will succeed or a transcendental basis for believing that it deserves to do so, social democracy today is just what its great nineteenth-century founders feared it would become if it ever abandoned its ideological presuppositions and class affiliation: the advanced wing of reforming market liberalism. Now, just as it has been relieved by the death of communism from the crippling mortgage of revolutionary expectations, is the European left to be reduced to defending hard-won sectoral gains and glancing nervously and resentfully at a future it cannot understand and for which it has no prescription?

The reconciliation between the European left and capitalism is still fresh and long overdue. We should recall that as recently as 1981 Francois Mitterrand's Socialist Party came to power on the promise and expectation of a radical and irreversible anticapitalist transformation. And anyone who supposes that this was a peculiarly and typically French aberration should reread the British Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto -- the "longest suicide note in history," in Labour Member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman's felicitous phrase. But today the left is no longer shackled to irrelevant, ineffective, or unpopular policies. On the contrary, the sort of society that the French, Swedish, Italian, and even the German socialists claim to seek is a fairly accurate reflection of the generalized preferences of the majority of their fellow citizens.

The real problem facing Europe's socialists (I use the term purely for its descriptive convenience, since it is now shorn of any ideological charge) is not their policy preferences, taken singly. Job creation, a more "social" Europe, public infrastructural investment, educational reforms, and the like are laudable and uncontroversial. But nothing binds these policies or proposals together into a common political or moral narrative. The left has no sense of what its own political success, if achieved, would mean; it has no articulated vision of a good, or even of a better, society. In the absence of such a vision, to be on the left is simply to be in a state of permanent protest. And since the thing most protested against is the damage wrought by rapid change, to be on the left is to be a conservative.

The brief success story of European social democracy and British Labour over the past half-century can be seen in retrospect to have depended on the same fortuitous circumstances as the welfare states it helped create. Now the left wants to preserve its positions and its hard-won sectoral gains. In defending these acquired rights and supporting those who would add to them -- like railway engineers and truck drivers in France who demand retirement on full pensions at 55 or even 50 -- the left (and sometimes the right) in France, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere confuses and discredits itself and its case by a failure to choose between ultimately incompatible claims. It is not so much fighting the ideological battle against neoliberal heartlessness but seeking to conserve privileges on behalf of the broadest possible constituency of well-organized voters who are anxious at the prospect of reduced income and services.

This paradox, if it is one, is not original. The left was often socially conservative -- notably during the French Revolution, when some of the most radical moments occurred on behalf of artisans' struggles to preserve established claims and privileges, and again during the early Industrial Revolution. Trade unions, especially those in the skilled trades, were never anything else, even when supporting radical political solutions. But it is an unconvincing posture, and given the impossibility of avoiding some unsettling changes in coming years, it is an improvident one.

In these circumstances the dangerous illusion of a radical center has taken hold. Like the French Socialists' 1997 slogan "Changeons d'avenir," Tony Blair's "radical centrism" is an empty vessel, clanging noisily and boastfully around the vacant space of European political argument. But whereas Lionel Jospin's clichés are familiar, those of New Labour are seductively novel at first hearing. Of course there are political advantages to being in the center. In normal times that is where the winning votes are to be found in any binary representative system. But if times become somewhat less normal, as seems likely, the center is quickly evacuated in favor of more extreme options. For the moment, Blairism consists of the successful displacement of the old, discredited left by what might be termed the bien-sentant center, the politics of good feeling, in which lightly retouched Thatcherite economics are blended with appropriately well-intentioned social adjustments borrowed from the neighboring liberal tradition. In this way the charge of heartless realism is avoided without any need to imagine alternatives. It is a tempting solution, and one that many of Blair's European socialist colleagues would certainly adopt had some local Thatcher prepared for them a suitably blasted heath.

But it is a mistake. Like the "as if" and "civil society" language of the Czech, Polish, and Hungarian opposition in the 1980s, it is a good and effective weapon in the struggle against insensitive or authoritarian governments. But once those governments have been overthrown or defeated, the morally unimpeachable advocates of anti politics find themselves confronted with political choices for which their previous experience has not prepared them. They must either compromise and lose their credibility or else quit public life. For most of the past century, the European left has somehow managed to do both. If it is to do better in the future, to avoid repeating its historical pattern of morally redeeming failure, it must return to the drawing board and ask itself these questions: What sort of a society is both desirable and envisageable under the present international configuration? What sort of economically literate policies are required to bring such an objective about? And what sort of arguments will be sufficiently convincing to make people vote to see these policies implemented?

The fact that the left is in office in most of Europe today is irrelevant to these requirements. Many of the socialists who now govern (in France, Britain, and Italy, for example) got there because of the collapse or division of the local right. In Britain and France a system of proportional representation would have deprived the present Labour and Socialist parties of their parliamentary majority in this year's elections. In that sense they are minority governments without mandates or long-term policies, whose strongest suit is the promise that they can undo some of the damage their predecessors in office did, simply by doing something different. They will not be reelected if they fail to come up with something better than their present offerings.

To begin with, the left might want to make a virtue of the necessity entailed in abandoning the project by which it has lived and died this century. If all history is the history of more than just class struggle, the economic identity of social beings that was so central for nineteenth-century social theorists -- whose encumbered heirs we remain -- is now distinctly peripheral for ever more people. The disappearance of work -- something the nineteenth-century utopians could only dream about! -- is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to rethink social policy. Some members of the European left have latched quite effectively onto the idea of protecting the exclus, but they still think of them as just that -- excluded from the norm, which remains that of fully employed, wage-earning, socially integrated workers. What needs to be grasped is that men and women in precarious employment, immigrants with partial civil rights, young people with no long-term job prospects, the growing ranks of the homeless and the inadequately housed, are not some fringe problem to be addressed and resolved, but represent something grimly fundamental.

There must, therefore, be a role for the state in incorporating the secular social consequences of economic change, and not merely providing minimum compensatory alleviation. This has two implications. Given the limited range of policymaking initiative in monetary and fiscal matters now open to any one government, the control or regulation of production in all its modern forms is not only undesirable but impossible. But divesting the state of all its economic controls is not a good thing; the state cannot run a car company or invent microchips, but it alone has the incentive and the capacity to organize health, educational, and recreational services. It is in the social interest to have a flourishing private productive sector, but one whose very existence is the condition for a thriving state service sector in those areas where the state is best equipped to provide the service, or where economic efficiency is not the most appropriate criterion of performance.

The proper level of state involvement in the life of the community can no longer be determined by ex hypothesi theorizing. We don't know what degree of regulation, public ownership, or distributive monopoly is appropriate across the board, only what works or is required in each case. Intervention mechanisms inherited from decisions that were appropriate when first made but that have since become anachronisms, like farm price supports or early retirement on full pay for state employees, are indefensible, above all because they inhibit the growth required to provide truly necessary benefits. Conversely, reductions in state involvement in the provision of public housing, medical facilities, or family services -- cuts that made demographic, economic, and ideological sense when first introduced in the 1970s and 1980s -- now seem perilously socially divisive, when those they might benefit have no other access to such resources.

The modern state still has a striking range of powers over how the economic growth generated in private hands might best be collectively distributed, at least at the local level. If the left could convincingly argue that it had a set of general principles guiding its choices in the distribution of resources and services and could show that those principles were not merely stubborn defenses of the status quo, making the best of someone else's bad job, it would have made a considerable advance. It would need to show that it understood that some must lose for all to gain; that a desire to sustain the intervention capacities of the state is not incompatible with acknowledgment of the need for painful reconsideration of the objects of that intervention; that both "regulation" and "deregulation" are morally neutral when taken in isolation. As things now stand the continental left merely records its (and its electors') discomfort at the prospect of rearranging the social furniture, while Britain's New Labour has come to power on the bankrupt promise that in these tricky matters it has no (unpopular) preferences of any kind.

Such reconsideration of principles is notoriously hard, and it is unfortunate if not wholly by chance that the left finds itself confronted with the need to reimagine its whole way of thought under less than propitious economic circumstances. But there is never a good moment for untimely thoughts. For some time to come the chief burden on the government of any well-run national community will be ensuring that those of its members who are the victims of economic transformations over which the government itself can exercise only limited control nevertheless live decent lives, even (especially) if such a life no longer contains the expectation of steady, remunerative, and productive employment; that the rest of the community is led to an appreciation of its duty to shoulder that responsibility; and that the economic growth required to sustain this responsibility is not inhibited by the ends to which it is applied. What makes all this difficult is that it is a job for the state, and that is hard to accept because the desirability of placing the maximum possible restrictions upon the interventionary capacities of the state has become the cant of our time.

Accordingly, the task of the left in Europe in the years to come will be to reconstruct a case for the activist state, to show why the lesson for the twentieth century is not that we should return, so far as possible, to the nineteenth. To do this, the left must come to terms with its own share of responsibility for the sins of our century. It was not so long ago, after all, that West German Social Democrats refused to speak ill of the late, unlamented German Democratic Republic, and there are still French and British Socialists who find it painful to acknowledge their erstwhile sympathy for the Soviet project in precisely its most state-idolatrous forms. But until the European left has recognized its past propensity to favor power over freedom, to see virtue in anything and everything undertaken by a progressive central authority, it will always be backing halfheartedly and shamefacedly into the future, presenting the case for the state and apologizing for it at the same time.

Until and unless this changes, the electors of Longwy and Sarrebourg, like their fellows in Austria, Italy, and Belgium (not to speak of countries farther east), will be tempted to listen to other voices, less timid about invoking the nation-state as the forum for redemptive action. Why are we so sure that the far right is behind us for good -- or indeed the far left? The postwar social reforms in Europe were instituted in large measure as a barrier to the return of the sort of desperation and disaffection from which fascism was thought to have arisen. The partial unraveling of those reforms, for whatever cause, should not too readily be treated as free of political risks. As the great reformers of the last century well knew, the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just wither away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers.

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